Mark Twain… Game Designer?

Roger Ebert has thrown himself into the center of video game debate lately due to his insistence that games cannot be art. He has since apologized, due in part to the fact that he has never actually played a video game. Unfortunately, it seems that he cannot quite be quiet on the matter, as recently he took a ridiculous poll of his Twitter followers/blog readers. It read:

Which of these would you value more?

1. A great video game.
2. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain?

Given the choice, 63.1% of the people polled value “a great video game” over Huck Finn.

Ebert’s poll exists because a follower of his Twitter feed proposed that if Mark Twain were alive today, he might be a game designer. This is based on the notion that Mark Twain spent a year of his life designing a game, a year that delayed the writing of Huckleberry Finn. Ebert brushes this off as “procrastination,” seeming to say that the book was Twain’s art while the game was a distraction. Although Ebert is quick to claim that this poll isn’t to bring back the game-as-art argument again, he is directly doing so by failing to see that Twain’s game very well might have been his art.

I don’t find it so hard to believe that if Mark Twain were alive today, he would choose a different medium by which to reach his audience. Maybe he would choose Ebert’s medium of film, or maybe he would be a game designer. I don’t see Mark Twain’s excitement or artistry very far removed from our Tim Schafers and our Ken Levines. Wow, I’d love to get Mark Twain and Will Wright in the same room, wouldn’t you?

I think the difference is that Twain, despite being an architect of modern American literature, was working in a medium that had been well defined for centuries. In contrast, although humanity has been playing games of one kind or another for a long time, narrative gaming—in the way we think of it today, where the player takes on different roles in immersive worlds—is a brand new medium.

Ebert’s blog hints at the downfall of America as foretold by his poll, because more people value “a great video game” than they do Huck Finn. I want to say first off, that Ebert is right; there has never been a video game better than the novel Huckleberry Finn. Whoops, he got us there. But to imply that Twain’s work creates intelligent Americans and video games create fools? He would never say the same thing about the art and business of film, although more movies are watched in America than books are read.

That’s because although I myself think that everyone who voted “a great video game” over Huckleberry Finn is wrong, I don’t think the same could be said when comparing it to “a great film.” Should Huckleberry Finn be valued higher than The Godfather? Higher than The Graduate? Higher than Citizen Kane? See, things get more difficult to answer, but that’s because film has been making a run at this art thing for a hundred years longer than games.

Imagine what sorts of games the great designers of today would make if they were born a hundred years from now. I think that at the speed we’re going, it won’t even be that long before we’re making game experiences that rival the emotional and intellectual impact of Twain’s magnum opus. Ebert’s poll asks if “a great video game” has more value than Huckleberry Finn, to which I reply no, it doesn’t. Not yet.

–Adam Dorsey

NOTE: Those interested in reading Roger Ebert’s blog discussed above can do so here.

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